Early in his IT career, Gerry Halmagyi was lucky to have a manager who genuinely cared about him and took the time to give him some sobering advice about the importance of continuing education. "Don't ever think that any company is going to be concerned about your overall career development," Halmagyi recalls his manager saying. "You are ultimately responsible for your career. You have to keep your education current." Halmagyi, a 20-year veteran of the IT industry, says he took this advice to heart, and for years he pursued certifications and professional development on his own dime and his own time. Eventually, while he was working as an IT director and business relationship manager with ConocoPhillips, the daily grind caught up with him, and he stopped his continuing education pursuits. In 2007, concerned about a possible layoff at ConocoPhillips, Halmagyi took stock of his career. He asked himself what skills would he be marketing and what value he would bring to an employer in the event he lost his job and needed to hunt for a new one. "I realized I probably was at risk if a layoff were to occur," says Halmagyi. "I had become complacent in my career and in my personal career development. I allowed myself to get caught up in the inertia of day-to-day work. I hadn't been thinking about where I ultimately want to go in my career and how I get there. I decided I needed to take more active responsibility for my own career." Balancing Life and IT Career Development Demanding full-time jobs, often coupled with hectic family responsibilities, prevent many IT professionals from pursuing the continuing education and professional development programs they need to remain relevant in the mercurial IT industry and competitive job market. But IT professionals who don't make time to take classes, study on their own, earn certifications or pursue advanced degrees risk becoming obsolete. "If you want to advance in your career and do well professionally, education is second to none," says John Hally, a senior network\/security engineer with EBSCO Publishing, a provider of research databases and ebooks for libraries, medical and government institutions. Hally has been taking classes on information security for 12 years. He's currently pursuing a Master's degree in security engineering from the SANS Technology Institute, a for-profit educational institution offering advanced degrees is security management and engineering. "It's an investment in yourself," adds Hally, who's worked for EBSCO for 19 years. "I'd rather invest in myself than drop that money into a mutual fund\u2014especially with the way the economy has been the last six years." Continuing education is such an important component of IT professionals' career plans because it exposes them to new ideas, new technologies, new processes and methodologies. And it does help them stand out to recruiters and employers. "When a manager or recruiter is looking at your resume and they see you've taken classes, earned certifications and pursued advanced degrees, it shows them that you have dedicated time to advancing your career and knowledge," says Bonnie Diehl, the SANS Technology Institute's chief academic officer. "It shows a willingness to learn and improve, and it's a real positive thing to see." Here, Halmagyi, Hally and project management consultant Andy Maxymillian offer seven tips to help you fit continuing education into your busy work and family life. 1. Start Small\n Thinking they need to devote multiple hours each week toward self-directed study, a class, or a degree or certification program prevents some IT professionals from getting started. "Don't worry about having to make enough time," says Andy Maxymillian, co-founder of Blue Wing Services, a technology and project management consulting firm that specializes in public safety communications. "Make a little time. Even if it's just a few minutes a day, carve out what you can and use it." For example, devoting just 10 minutes a day to reading a text book can give you the momentum you need to keep going and eventually accomplish more. Maxymillian notes that reaching your goal, whether that's to earn a certification or complete an online class, will take a bit longer, but you will eventually achieve it. 2. Set a Goal. Establish a Plan When Halmagyi decided he wanted to earn the PMP certification, he set a goal to take the exam two months later. Then, he established a study plan to achieve it: He would study one night each week for two to three hours and put in another three to four hours of study over the weekend. "Along the way, if something came up or I didn't feel confident enough in the material, I would stretch the goal date out a little." 3. Cut Yourself Some Slack Don't think you have to study every day or even every week. If a few days or a few weeks slip by, don't give up, says Maxymillian. "There are going to be times when you just don't have the time or energy to pick up the book," he says. "If you miss a week, if you miss a few days, that's OK. That's what kept me going when I would get discouraged about not having touched the PMBOK in a week. That's life. Just pick up where you left off and keep going." 4. Proceed at Your Own Pace Maxymillian started preparing for the PMP exam in 2001. He didn't earn the certification until 2004 because he had so much going on during those three intervening years: He was a newlywed; he was consulting on a big project that required him to work 60 hours a week; he and his wife were building their own home; and they had a baby. Whether you're pursuing a certification or trying to earn an advanced degree, the point is: You don't have to do it in six months or even a year. Go at your own pace. 5. Take Advantage of Travel Time Halmagyi, who recently lost his job with ConocoPhillips when the company decided to shut down the refinery where he worked, says he used to have to travel a lot. He used all the time he spent on planes and in airports to read and prepare for certification exams, such as the Project Management Institute's Project Management Professional (PMP) credential and ISACA's certification in the governance of enterprise IT. Maxymillian listened to the Project Management Institute's Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) CD in his car during the 80 minutes he commuted to work each way in 2001. He listened to the CD three days a week, and in the evenings, he read what he listened to during the day. 6. Make Professional Development Fun Professional development isn't just about taking classes and earning credentials. IT professionals can increase their understanding of business and technology trends and concepts by attending conferences and networking events. Halmagyi considers his membership in different professional organizations such as the Society for Information Management part of his professional development and continuing education. The conferences, luncheons and breakfast meetings these professional development organizations hold allow Halmagyi to connect with and learn from his peers. 7. Enlist Your Employer's Support EBSCO's Hally says his employer and his immediate boss have been tremendously supportive of his educational pursuits. His employer offers tuition reimbursement, he says, and his boss wrote a letter of recommendation for him when he enrolled in a Master's degree program. Hally says EBSCO's support has been a key to his ability to fit continuing education into his busy schedule. EBSCO is undoubtedly so supportive of Hally because the company has benefited on several occasions from Hally's studies. For example, when one of EBSCO's customers was experiencing slow response times when it tried to access one of EBSCO's application over the Internet, Hally applied some of the hands-on, open source tools he had learned in an intrusion analysis class. When he looked at the network traffic himself, he quickly identified the problem: The customer's firewall was dropping packets because it thought they were malicious. The customer changed the rule set that was causing the lost traffic, and the problem was resolved. "Without the training, I would never have been able to rely on true packet analysis to interpret the problem," he says. "I loved that class, and it came through for me." Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Security and Cloud Computing for CIO.com. 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